Confusion Over Circumstances of U.S. Destroyer Collision

The Fitzgerald returns to Yokosuka (USN)

Published Jun 20, 2017 11:16 AM by The Maritime Executive

The Japanese coast guard announced Monday that the crew of the container ship ACX Crystal waited for nearly an hour to report their collision with the USS Fitzgerald, throwing the incident’s timeline into doubt.

The charterer of the Crystal, NYK Line, claimed Monday that the time of the accident was 0130, not 0220, as previously believed. The Crystal’s crew waited to report the collision until 0225, leading authorities to conclude (falsely) that the accident happened at about the time of the report. To add to the confusion, the U.S. Navy said Monday that the initially reported time of impact was accurate. [Update: In comments to the New York Times on Tuesday, Seventh Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Bill Clinton appeared to reverse this position. "We're not disputing what the Japanese Coast Guard is saying" about the collision timeline, he said.]

The collision was among the most serious non-combat Navy casualties in recent years. The service has confirmed that seven of the Fitzgerald's crewmembers were killed in the accident: Gunner's Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19;  Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass; Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh, 25; Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, 26; Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23; Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24; and Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37. Three more were wounded, including the destroyer's commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson. 

"We are all deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our fellow shipmates as a result of Friday's collision between USS Fitzgerald and a commercial container ship, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families," said Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley in a statement. "As details emerge, we can all be proud of the heroic effort by the crew to tend to the needs of those injured and save the ship from further damage while returning safely to port."

The U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Japan Coast Guard have all launched investigations into the cause of the collision. Japanese authorities are interviewing the crew of the Crystal and plan to retrieve her VDR data.

AIS data shows that between about 0132 and 0134, the Crystal changed course by 90 degrees to starboard and lost six knots of speed. She then turned back to port and settled on an northeasterly course similar to her earlier trackline. 

"This is, to me, proof that a computer was driving [the Crystal]. No captain shakes off a collision with a U.S. Navy destroyer and resumes course so perfectly," said Steffan Watkins, an analyst with Janes Intelligence, speaking with the Daily Mail. "I suspect, from the data, that the ACX Crystal was running on autopilot the whole time, and nobody was on the bridge."

The Crystal did not stay on her northeasterly course for long. At 0200 hours, she turned around and headed back to her 0130 position, arriving at about 0235. 

NoteNaval vessels do not always transmit AIS, and the Fitzgerald’s trackline is not available. 

Observers noted that AIS coast stations do not always capture a full picture of vessel traffic in busy sea lanes, like the area off Cape Irozaki where the collision occurred. The Japan Coast Guard says that up to 400 vessels a day pass through this area, without the benefit of designated VTS traffic lanes. 

“It is possible the ships [in the collision] had little room for significant maneuvers as there may have possibly been other ships, such as fishing boats," said Prof. Yoshihiko Yamada, a marine safety expert at Tokai University, speaking to Japan Times. 

Fitzgerald’s crew saved their ship

In a press conference Sunday, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of 7th Fleet, credited the Fitzgerald's damage control efforts with saving the ship. "This was not a small collision," he said. "So the water flow was tremendous, and so there wasn't a lot of time in those spaces that were open to the sea. And as you can see now, the ship is still listing, so they had to fight . . . to keep it above the surface."

Mia Sykes, the mother of Fitzgerald crewmember Brayden Harden, told the AP that crewmembers from the two damaged berthing compartments repeatedly dove back into the flooded spaces in an attempt to save their crewmates. Abovedecks, others responded by manning battle stations in the belief that the ship was under attack.